Nothing else on television right now goes where USA Network’s Mr. Robot goes. Or feels like it does. Or sounds or looks more polished. The show’s technical achievements match, if not surpass, its story’s lofty goals and ambitious concepts, with a signature aesthetic and sensibility that borrow from the greatest transgressive hits of neo-noir and cyberpunk, while remaining an original and inspired work that stands firmly on its own. Not to mention the show’s first season has garnered virtually universal critical acclaim. Each episode of the first season has a 100% “Certified Fresh” rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes, a never-before-achieved feat in the site’s lifetime of nearly 20 years. The second season of Mr. Robot premieres on July 13th.
We spoke with Mr. Robot’s picture editor, Philip Harrison, and sound editor, Kevin Buchholz, about their experience working on the series.
S&P: Tell us how you first became involved with Mr. Robot. What interested you most about it?
Philip Harrison: I had been working at Ryan Murphy Television for some time, on the show Glee, and over there I crossed paths with Adam Penn, who edited American Horror Story and won an ACE award for editing The Normal Heart. He’s also one of the writers on Mr. Robot. He’s an editor, too, and he had done work at Ryan Murphy. So we knew each other from that world. When they were starting to look for editors for Mr. Robot, Adam threw my name into the hat, and they called me in for an interview.
Before the interview, they had sent me the pilot, and it completely blew me away, just like it does for practically everyone else that sees it. The world that [director] Sam [Esmail] had created – a dark mirror of our own – has these certain attractive qualities for me. In respect to the financial crisis that’s been happening over the past ten years or so and the income inequality, these are all big issues that are on top of my mind, and of course, the show takes them on headfirst. I appreciated that combination of topical subject matter and important commentary about our corporate culture and the 99% versus the 1%, all couched deep within this intriguing world of computer hacking, but at the center of the story is this simply amazing character that Sam and [lead actor] Rami Malek created, Elliot, who’s like a modern Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. I could immediately tell from the pilot that the subject matter combined with the creative leaps they were making would make this a dream job for me.
Luckily, I got an interview with Sam, and I certainly went into that with a lot of enthusiasm. He and I connected on our love of movies. For example, I’m a big fan of [David] Cronenberg’s Videodrome, and I think Cronenberg has a big influence on our show. Sam isn’t afraid to reference the directors and films that he loves. You’ll find in Mr. Robot nods to Stanley Kubrick, and David Fincher is a big one, which I think most people are aware of. And there are many others. So Sam and I connected on that level, and I was thrilled when he invited me to be involved with the season.
Sam’s approach has so much imagination and rigor. It’s much more like a feature film than a TV show. If it was just the thriller aspect and the creativity of making this world, I would have loved it, but to have some personal emotional resonance with the project, as well, made working with this team an incredible ride.
Kevin Buchholz: The way I came to it was a little bit different. It was pretty abrupt and came about through some connections. After they finished with the pilot, Sam had certain specifics in mind. My understanding is that he had heard about the work I had done on season one of Fargo [FX], and he liked that. The AP on Mr. Robot’s first season had worked with the AP on Fargo – the world is so small – and they made that connection.
What mainly drew me to the show is just how cinematic it is. It’s not about act outs. And nothing against that. I understand that formula, and I’ve worked in and had a lot of fun with that formula. But it’s great that there aren’t these boundaries that you normally have to think about. The show does whatever it wants, which is fantastic. It’s so watchable and so engaging that, even though it may be a bit draining due to the darker realm the story inhabits, it’s still very enthralling. Joining the show, I felt super lucky to be a part of it in any way.
S&P: Describe your typical process and workflow.
KB: On this show, we have to be very deliberate. Everything that you see and hear in the show is there for a reason. There’s not a lot of fat. It should be trimmed, and it should be very clear what every shot should be. This is helpful, or even essential, for what we want to accomplish.
PH: Sam always has an opinion and a definite reason for doing everything. He’s a very intentional filmmaker. When he gets to moments that need to be a certain way, he’ll hone in on it.
KB: Yes. Also, one of my personal pet peeves as a sound guy is that I hate it when Hollywood makes computers make noises that they don’t actually make. I’m a purist. I’m the guy with the headphones and the fuzzy microphones that’s kneeling over keyboards and making sure they sound right. I’ll hear a door and go, “That door.” I’m that guy. I love hearing real life, and I want it to be so that no one notices what I’ve done. I love when people hear my sound effects and then say something like, “Production sounds great.” That’s the type of stuff I live for. So I guess it goes without saying that the keyboards in Mr. Robot are all legit. And it’s very exciting to work with others who are on the same page.
I don’t understand why this is so common, but if you pay attention, almost every time there’s a keyboard or some kind of computer on whatever show, there are always some sort of telemetry sounds or some bleeps and bloops added in. And that’s fine. I get it. You kind of have to engage the audience. But the truth is, when you have someone like Rami – to watch him coding at a terminal is nail-biting. He proved that you can do that, which is rare. I think The Social Network did that pretty well, too.
All of these details were really refreshing. The whole concept of “If it’s real, it’s in” is pretty great. And when it’s not real, it’s over the top, as Philip and I can attest to. We worked on an episode last year that was very much like that. I just really love how there’s very little gray area between the real and the surreal.
PH: I think part of the reason that some other movies and shows, which have their own entertainment value, may have some of that kind of sound work Kevin’s describing is that you’re only relying on the visceral sensations, the physical camera movement or the sound effects, to keep things alive. I had just been working on Glee, where we utilized some of those techniques to keep things popping, and they have their place with the right material.
To me, one of the most impressive things about Mr. Robot is the different pacing of the story and the internal pacing of scenes, which was a real challenge when I first started working on it, because I’m used to cutting on every line and keeping things really snappy. Sam insisted that we keep Mr. Robot cinematic, and he asked us to do without those kinds of bells and whistles. He wants us to trust that our characters and our storylines are interesting enough on their own.
We slowed down the pace, and eventually I was able to adjust to this mindset. And what happened for me is that, when I approach the material now, I’m hanging on every word and everything has a potential meaning. I think that’s part of why the sound style can work, because underneath everything there’s such a fullness and a trusting of the story, so you don’t need sound effects popping in and keeping you active. The story itself is just so engrossing.
That being said, on every episode it’s fairly up-for-grabs what the approach is going to be on any given scene. Working with Sam, I have my first shot when I’m editing before he comes into the room, and he really encourages us to go for it and really explore the scene and come up with ideas that he might not have thought of and just try to get it standing on its own feet. Sam’s a very hands-on director. When he comes in, he has his own vision, so half the time he’ll want to do it a completely different way. Another quarter of the time, he’ll only want to make moderate adjustments. And then there are those magic moments when we all see exactly eye-to-eye on something from the get-go.
KB: Philip and Sam and everyone in editorial took some critical initial steps that involved planting these conceptual seeds. These seeds would grow into certain ideas that we would see and grab onto, and they indicated what the intended shape is and how to build on it. Altogether, these seeds painted a fuller picture that brought out an overall theme, which we would carry into other aspects of the show, at which point everything seemed to kind of gel together. It’s so refreshing to have such attention and care coming from the picture side of the equation. The process goes to the next level and becomes even more exciting when you play it all back, and then you can see all of the work that’s gone into it and how it’s helped to define this theme and made everything click.
Episode four in particular had mountains of work. At that time, I was working very long days with John Cook, our lead mixer on that show, staying up at night and working on our own time afterhours. We knew that’s what it was going to take for this episode. It was just so jam-packed that the only way to realistically get through it is with extra time. That’s the one thing any editor wants over money is time. Just like, “Can I please have a few extra days with this thing?” Especially on the sound side of things.
These seeds I’ve mentioned, they help you understand what the framework is and provide you with fresh ideas to run with. We need those boosters and indicators to ensure us that the work we’re putting in will be well received, because, unlike a feature, we don’t get revisions. We’ll get one swing at it, maybe two. There’s not a full week or a complement of pre-dub time where you go through fifty-five revisions on a signature sound. We pretty much have to get it right the first time because we have to move on to the next item.
We have self-imposed high expectations as creatives, and because the content’s going to be on the screen, you want it to be great. But you’ve got a week to do it. The only way that really gets accomplished is through fluid collaboration. You can’t simply fabricate more time, so you have to use your time very wisely and work together. To have that concept be so tangible within our crews’ relationships has been pretty remarkable, and to see the end product of our collaborative efforts is ecstatic.
PH: It’s great when we start cross-pollinating as we’re working with each other through the season. We’ll get Kevin’s stems from his mixes, and we can start integrating some of that work into our cuts. This makes the process even more collaborative, and an even denser weaving of the material starts to occur.
PH: Our cutting rooms were at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. We edited the show on Avid. We had eight systems connected to an ISIS media server, and we used the M-Audio BX5a for monitoring sound. Sound was mixed in stereo for our offline.
With Mr. Robot, because it is so intensive and so much work, a solid crew is essential, and we were lucky to have a great team. The assistant editor I worked with on the first season, A.J. Calomay, was completely indispensable. He helped with getting all of our dailies in and jumped in to do some preliminary sound work and temp VFX. He helped me with recaps and was the main person responsible for workflow in and out of our cutting rooms, and he communicated with all the departments. Knowing that A.J. had my back all the way was a huge weight off of my shoulders, and that relief let me just keep in there and stay on top of my specific creative duties. Katie Lilly, who was our post producer, kept things running smoothly. And of course, there’s our amazing sound team, which Kevin’s been at the center of. Plus, our composer, Mac Quayle, is phenomenal. It’s really an incredible group of people to be collaborating with.
KB: I worked closely with our sound designer, John Peccatiello, outlining everything that’s important. And I really want to emphasize Mac Quayle’s score, as well, and what exactly he contributes sonically to the show. It’s significant. I mean, his contribution is up there with Elliot or one of the other main characters. This is from the sound guy’s perspective, so I am a little biased. But what Mac’s score contributes is huge and crucial. It influenced and informed our entire process, actually.
It was awesome that what [editor] Franklin [Peterson] and Philip would deliver us always included such a meticulous outline from their Avid sequences. When Sam would lock something, the intent was fairly clear. So we were given a very clear road map. Some sounds were decided on beforehand and selected by Philip, particularly signature sounds, and that gives us somewhere to build from.
We had to do a lot of prioritization for this show. If there’s a particular moment of score that you know is going to carry the emotional tension or arc of a particular moment (and there are tons of them in Mr. Robot), then get out of the way. It’s knowing when to design and when not to design and how to work in concert. With Mac’s work mapped out, we could delineate: “This is a scored moment, so this is for Mac. Okay, and now this other moment is for us, something we really need to design. This is where Elliot goes through withdrawal, which means XYZ, and this much of it is our responsibility.” Working with John closely meant knowing when to pick our moments and spots and when to just get out of the way. John did an excellent job with all of that. It involves a lot of coordination.
On the dialogue side of things, Sam really, really does not like ADR, and he always prefers to avoid having to replace what was done on the day. I mean, who really wants ADR? It’s not exactly anyone’s favorite compromise to make. I worked closely with Shannon Beaumont, who’s my dialogue editor. She and I worked kind of tirelessly trying to find every tool available to clean up dialogue. On the Foley side, Adam De Coster was our Foley artist and Andrew Morgado was the mixer and editor.
Elliot’s apartment has this great sound, so we really tried to mimic those footsteps when they’re free and clear. The show’s framing is done in such a way that, most of the time, our mains are in the lower thirds and in the corners, so you have all of this negative space above the characters, which lends itself to this echoey style of footstep. We wanted to hear more of the space, based on that framing. Everyone’s so used to these very tight shots nowadays, if you have any reverb or any sort of echo or room sound, it can almost feel awkward. But in the framing with our show, it was encouraged to do that, and I thought it worked very nicely in a lot of places. So we would do stuff like that in Foley to try and match the natural echo that was in a lot of the sets and locations.
KB: Timothia Sellers was our production mixer, and I worked with her quite a bit. She was great. There was a standing order that all actors must wear body mics. This is a good time to say that each and every cast member is lovely, and it was a real pleasure getting to work with them. As much as we didn’t use ADR, we still shot it. You know how that goes: Make sure you have it. And the whole cast really wanted to do their best for that. Timothia did a great job with getting the actors to wear their packs almost all the time, so you’d break for lunch or whatever and just wire them up when it was their turn to shoot.
Because of the framing, you can’t get a boom mic in anywhere. You really can’t. You’re working with body mics for the most part. We got away with some plant mics here and there. We’d use the boom whenever we had the chance, when the framing wasn’t so wide overhead. Timothia got us a lot of wild sounds, too. I asked her to grab some wild sounds any time she could think to, even if it’s just a crew setting up in a space. Sometimes, hearing the shape of a room will be enough to give me something I can work with and at least mimic, which gets back to the realism and making sure that everything sounds as natural and real as possible.
S&P: What gear and equipment do you find most helpful for this show?
KB: I think I’m similar to Philip in that I know he prefers a simpler and more natural approach. My advice is: Don’t rely too much on too many tricks. It’s great when I can get a natural reverb in a recording of a space that works for a scene. Then all I have to do is bang up a fader, and I’m done. And the work was done recording it and not trying to make it work. So I try to find the source that works for the scene rather than focusing on looking for the tool that works for the source.
But we do use these tools, and the best gear I can have is a field recorder and a decent microphone, for when we try to get into locations and record stuff. That’s probably the number one thing. We’ll go out to different locations and try to get as much authentic sound as possible. There’s a whole series of telephone recordings we did that no one else will ever listen to. They’re just someone sitting in front of a telephone, hanging it up, picking it up, all the cord movements. I try to focus on what I know we’ll reuse, like if there’s a particular prop that’s used over and over again. For example, we’ve recorded the “fsociety” mask so many times with all kinds of different handling. It’s a bit thicker plastic.
Plug-ins inevitably come into the scope of things, and on that end, Altiverb is probably our go-to plug-in for convolution reverb. For dialogue restoration, we use iZotope RX like crazy. We’ll use noise suppression and Spectral repair. Basically, we try to do whatever we can to repair dialogue so that, in all cases, we can preserve the performance on the day. It was super important that we preserved the takes that were selected and not replace something unless we absolutely had to. It was a tough trial, but I feel like we hardly did any ADR, looking back at it, which is pretty great.
PH: Kevin’s correct in that I’m a fairly straightforward editor. I have Avid, and I work with the package of tools that Avid comes with. There’s an audio suite and equalizer. But I think of myself as a little more old‑school. For me, it’s more about focusing on the story. The tools are interesting, but I’m the kind of guy who was trained to not look at the timeline. My happy place is when I have my eyes locked on the screen where the actors are, with my three fingers on the play button, pause button, and cutting button. I tend to let all of the tools disappear as much as I possibly can and just focus on what’s there, with my eyes and with my ears.
Sam pushes us in the cutting room, even during the picture editing stage, because he needs to hear and see things in a certain way, so we do a lot of work just to get it up on its feet and make it feel as real as possible within the time constraints that we have. It often goes like this: After working for however many weeks on an episode, you’ve fallen in love with the episode, but you’ve also lost all sensitivity to the material. It’s thrilling to pass it on to the sound department at that point, where it suddenly goes through this other transformation.
There’s an extended dream sequence in the first season’s fourth episode. It lasts for about ten minutes, going through two commercial breaks. We had to create a whole soundscape for that that gets across the sound of Elliot’s mind. For this sequence, we temped in as much music as we could find that reflected an interior space, and we looked for as many textures as we could that would aid with that effect. We filled that part in as much as possible, but like I was saying, the thrill and the beauty of this is to hand it over to Kevin and his team and then to hear it after they’ve done their editorial process and their mix. You are able then to enjoy the scene anew.
I was re-reviewing that dream sequence, and there’s a moment during it where there’s this key around this character’s neck. The beautiful sound of that key sort of clinking on a chain suddenly makes you really focused on the key. Then there’s this moment with a talking fish in a fishbowl where Kevin and the sound team added in this gorgeous swish and a gurgle whenever the fish is talking. These details bring the sequence to life.
There is also some cool work done with voice manipulation. One of the show’s main characters, who’s central to this dream sequence, has his voice put through some processing, and the way that Kevin and the mixers and dialogue editors all merged that element into other areas gives this magnificent effect. There’s this fake commercial with a voiceover at the dream sequence’s end, and they took that signature processed-voice sound and merged it into the commercial’s voiceover. All of the time and effort and attention to detail, from the very beginning of the process down through every crew member involved – I think that’s what makes this show work on such an exciting level.
PH: I work freelance, and as an editor, I’m always hoping to have a job that’s challenging and cinematic. You know, I love movies.
PH: To be able to work on something that I can relate to on that wavelength has been great. But I think that, when you work in television, every job has its challenges and pleasures, and there’s always something interesting to be done in editing. You can always find a creative challenge or an editorial puzzle to solve. I love getting into that mindset. But you never know exactly what to expect when you jump on a new show. You do have your intuition as to whether it’s going to be exciting or not, and watching the pilot, I had a sense that this was going to be a dream job, in terms of reflecting the kinds of movies I love and opening up those creative challenges.
Really, it’s all on Sam in how he has such a drive to create a very cinematic show. He doesn’t compromise with himself on his approach, and he communicates very well those expectations and those approaches to us and the rest of the crew. It’s definitely a challenge, because the schedule is very tight. It’s very tight for any show. With Mr. Robot’s extremely layered storytelling, we need to go through the story over and over and over again so that we’re fully confident that we’ve found all of the subtleties and that we’ve brought out all the right moments. It’s not obvious. Sam does not rely on formula at all. So it’s always a challenge to really work things through, and it’s very time intensive. Plus, we add on all of these layers of music and sound. Luckily, we’re working on a show that we all love, and we want to pour ourselves into it.
It’s somewhat of an interesting situation the industry is facing, in how there has been a shift where this sort of cinematic experience is what audiences expect out of television now. But the approach in making TV content isn’t necessarily a filmmaking approach. Things that really need a month or two months, now we have to do them very quickly. I’m always grateful for the people who I’ve worked with in the past, who have mentored me as an editor, because somehow I’ve accumulated enough skill by now to keep up with the current pace, and to be able to keep up with Sam’s mind. He’s indefatigable and always pushing to make things as excellent as possible.
KB: I think it does come down to time. And that confronts the expectation of quality. The audience’s expectations have grown, for sure, which is wonderful. People talk about a Golden Age of Television and how the 40-million-dollar independent movie of the past is now being made into a ten-hour series instead. It’s a shift that’s happening. But the interesting thing to note is that post schedules for television haven’t reflected that. The amount of time that we have to do it in hasn’t changed. So whenever I’m going into a show like this for a new season, there are a lot of things we try to do in preparation. You have to do everything you can. We go and record actual city ambiances. It’s reading the scripts ahead of time and doing the field recordings of things that are mentioned in the script and hoping that they’re what is going to be shot. There are risks, and this is all on our own time. These are the things you have to do in order to economize so that you can deliver on what Sam has written and what’s in his mind. You really want it to come to life in the way you know he expects, and at the level of quality that we expect, too.
One of things that helps me address achieving that level of quality is to try and be much more anticipatory than I would have been previously. I think post sound, in some regards, is very reactionary. Here’s a locked cut, hit the ground running. The only way I see for it to be successful in the contemporary method of doing things is to be more proactive. I’m always knocking on Philip’s door and asking him questions. Philip is very accommodating about it, but I’m always asking him, “Can I get this? Can I get that scene? What does that look like? My god, how am I going to design this? What is that going to look like? Oh, please, let me get a sneak peek so I can get started.”
I’m very much a revisionist editor. I love to just throw everything at the wall and then start pulling things away. That’s how I like to create and work with my team. You’ve got to start early if you want to deliver on a cinematic expectation within a television timeframe. You’ve got to start searching yourself for what you think is going to work based on the content. I would love it if there were a bit more time, but I don’t see that happening. I really don’t see the schedules changing and pushing out, so we have to be the ones that adapt more and be more proactive rather than simply reacting to the locked cut. If we wait to react, then, in some cases, it will be too late. From the time we receive a lock and do a spotting session, the clock starts counting down, and we might have only seven days. If we need at least a day to design a single five-minute sequence, then we’re already behind. So you need to figure out the best way to get ahead.
Watch the Season 2 Trailer:
Photos courtesy of USA